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How to Help Kids Navigate Social Media’s Mental Health Toll

Honest conversations and clear boundaries can encourage healthy behavior.

Key points

  • Unlimited social media use can trigger anxiety and depression in children and teens.
  • Adults should hold ongoing conversations with kids about the risks and what healthy behavior looks like.
  • Age-appropriate rules around social media use can help kids develop healthier habits.

As a practicing psychiatrist for nearly 20 years, I’ve seen firsthand the “profound risk of harm” that social media can have on children and teens. While there are undoubtedly benefits to these platforms, particularly for self-expression, community building, and education, the risks must be taken seriously. Social media use has been linked to sleep disruption, depression, and body image issues in teens and adolescents. For many of my adolescent patients, it has led to an increased risk of anxiety and depression. I’ve even seen it alter their perception of reality and affect how they remember important life events.

In one of my cases, an adolescent client consumed extensive social media content centered on losing weight and achieving an unrealistic beauty standard, to the point where it significantly impacted her mental health and self-image. This was a student who did quite well in school and who was generally a happy kid, but began to exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression. She lost sleep because she kept going back to look at triggering posts, to the point of obsessive-compulsive behavior. She was spiraling. What may have started as an underlying predisposition to anxiety was triggered by social media and became a diagnosable condition requiring outpatient treatment.

The permanence and 24/7 availability of social media are huge risk factors. Nine-five percent of teens report using some form of social media, while about one-third say they use it “constantly.” Adolescents haven’t yet developed the coping techniques to contend with these apps as adults do. Our frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex—those very important parts of our brain responsible for emotional regulation, risk-versus-reward behavior, and impulse control—don’t fully develop until our mid-20s. This means that for young people in particular, unlimited social media use can become a common and recurring catalyst for anxiety or depression.

The U.S. Surgeon General, the American Psychological Association, and many other groups have sounded the alarm in recent months about the risks of social media. It’s time for parents—and other stakeholders including educators, caretakers, and clinicians—to speak honestly and openly with children and teens about these risks. Many adults already have these conversations about drugs, alcohol, and other unhealthy behaviors with their children. We can borrow from these tactics to initiate ongoing, transparent conversations and put guardrails in place to better support the well-being of our kids.

Don’t shy away from honest conversations.

There used to be a misconception that adults should avoid talking to children and teens about topics like alcohol and suicide because it might inspire or encourage these behaviors. Now, it’s commonly understood that these discussions are actually helpful in both reducing these behaviors and the stigma around asking for help. The same tactics should apply to social media.

Social media can absolutely present a risk to an adolescent’s health and well-being comparable to substance use. For teen girls in particular, the negative self-image brought on by incessant weight loss ads, photos of influencers with edited and filtered figures, and cyberbullying can trigger restrictive eating habits and significant health risks. In one survey, nearly half of young people aged 12 to 21 years said they have started exercising excessively, stopped socializing completely, or self-harmed due to being bullied online about their physical appearance.

Rather than resorting to scare tactics, parents and other adults should discuss the real risks with kids, including the potential harm and what healthy behaviors look like. Find consistent ways to check in on how your child is feeling about social media or its impact on them; for example, you can institute a family dinner routine where everyone shares one positive and one negative thing they saw on social media that day. Of course, these conversations will scale based on the age of a child, but adults shouldn’t shy away from tough conversations.

It also helps to draw from personal experience, which I’ve seen many parents do when discussing bad experiences with alcohol or drug use. Be honest with kids and teens about how social media impacts your own mental health and how you navigate these challenging emotions.

Set appropriate guardrails—that the whole family follows.

When I was in high school and getting ready to go out with friends, my mother would give me the same talk every weekend: Don’t get in a car with someone who’s been drinking, and call me if you need anything. As much as I rolled my eyes at her speeches, I also valued them. I knew what was expected of me.

Today’s generation of caretakers must set and enforce similar expectations around social media use. From my own experience raising two children, I’ve learned that the most effective rules involve routine, are visualized in some way, and are modeled by the whole family. Adults should set expectations around how often kids can use their devices, for how long, and what sites they can visit. It helps to display these rules in a high-traffic area like the kitchen or front hallway. The rules can be different for every age group, but everyone should stick to them (including adults). The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a Family Media Plan to guide household rules around social media use, as well as recommendations based on different stages of youth development.

The American Psychological Association has recommended limiting social media use so it does not interfere with adolescents’ sleep or physical activity, as well as limiting activity that involves primarily beauty- or appearance-related content, among other recommendations. By setting these boundaries, parents and caretakers can act as the “frontal lobe” for their kids and help reduce unhealthy behaviors.

This is a community effort.

Supporting kids’ mental health and well-being requires a community effort. My husband and I, along with most parents, rely on a network of extended family, neighbors, teachers, friends, and caregivers to help raise our kids and model healthy behaviors around drugs and alcohol. This community effort should extend to social media as well. Collaborate with your network to monitor social media use and set consistent guardrails.

The network of adults in an adolescent’s life should engage in honest, consistent conversations about social media’s potential to trigger mental health conditions. Age-appropriate boundaries should be put in place, and healthy behaviors should be modeled by a community of influential adults.

The risks of social media for children and teens are not going away anytime soon. I’m optimistic that, over time, steps will be taken to better protect our kids—similar to raising the age requirements for purchasing alcohol or cigarettes. Until that happens, adults must play an active role in communicating social media’s risks and enforcing healthy guardrails.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


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Goldfield, S., & Maslowsky, J. (2023, February 14). Reducing social media use significantly improves body image in teens, young adults. American Psychological Association.

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Matt Richtel, Catherine Pearson, and Michael Levenson. Surgeon General Warns That Social Media May Harm Children and Adolescents. New York Times. May 23, 2023.

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